February 08, 2008



I agree with you. And I promise that I won't tell people about the YouTube video you uploaded shortly BEFORE writing this post titled "Leave Charles Alone."

Brooklyn Bibliophile

For all I know Charles Bock may be the second coming of James Joyce, and I can certainly make up my mind about his novel once I read it. But to suggest that the marketing of Bock is purely tied to the genius of his work (as opposed to, say, his persona and backstory) seems misguided to me. He's a version of the Next New Thing; not all that different, from a promotional perspective, from a sexy twenty-something writer who has relied on family connections to spotlight their fiction.

Publishers are always looking to push the off-the-book-page aspect of a writer, which is proper -- they're selling a product, even if it's literary fiction, and need to ramp up buzz from as many quarters as possible. But I don't think it makes sense to carp when some reviewers don't bite. Critics like Maslin may think the novel is grossly overhyped and overrated and have the right to say so in their venues.


BB, just to be clear, I am not taking issue with Maslin (for a change). You are right, she is absolutely entitled to have an opinion about the work. I am referring to the (mostly online) idiot naysayers, like the NY Magazine blog post that expressed pleasure at her negative review, while admitting they hadn't read the book. That sort of thing strikes me as deeply sad, twisted and cynical. I'll say it again - writers receive so little coverage, comparatively, in our trivial culture that when one of them gets elevated to phenom, whatever the reason, however briefly, I'm for that.

Brooklyn Bibliophile

Thanks, TEV, for the clarification. We are of one mind when it comes to idiot naysayers, as well as the ardent desire to see worthy literary writers break out. But there are a lot of folks out there who opine about books they haven't read, and I'm not just talking about some random dude with a laptop, suffering from Bock-envy. Didn't a recent ethics survey reveal that a shockingly high percentage of NBCC members claim it's okay to review a book they hadn't finished? The figure 40% sticks in my mind. Any thoughts?


What's wrong with skepticism? Are we so debased in our literary ghetto that we're haters for not cheerleading for the latest "kewl" author? The marketing of the author over the book just smacks like James Frey 2.0.


Skepticism is fine, Peetey, as far as it goes, but the real question is what will you do to address your skepticism? Because if your answer is anything other than cracking open the book and having a look for yourself, then you bring nothing to the conversation. The idiot cynicism of the shouters out there is one thing, and it's sad, but it's expected - there will always be envy, rudeness, and the rest. But even worse than that lot, I think, are the ones who allow themselves to be led by them, who make their decisions upon the foundation of the bitterness of others. That's even worse than sad, that's embarrassing.

And you should be really clear on something. Of course books are marketed. Any publisher that does not do everything within their power to market a book is failing their obligation to their authors. What do you propose? That Knopf load up its fall titles into a dump truck and deposit them on a street corner somewhere for people to simply paw through? It's either silly or willfully naive to express indignation at the notion that books get marketed.

But the dumbest part, I think, is this notion that there's some kind of orchestrated campaign out there and everyone is in cahoots. Do you have any idea how thrilled and lucky RH must feel to get this kind of notice? And if it was something they could simply do on demand, don't you think they'd do it all the time?

Publishers known that reviews play a small role at best in sales, and what matters is media attention. And so they carefully craft the most compelling narrative they can for each author and book - as they should - and hope to heaven that someone bites. In retrospect, can anyone be surprised Bock's story caught editors' attention? Vegas, 10 years of struggle, successful friends - it's a natural from an editorial point of view. There's no conspiracy out there. Now, if you want to argue that editors could use a more expansive sense of what makes a good story, go for it. But to suggest that there's some sinister marketing cabal manipulating the New York Times, NPR and the rest is, frankly, assinine.

And this isn't about Bock, specifically - we've seen it with Pessl, with Foer, you name it. And I return to my original argument - what's wrong with talking about a writer? And what better way to decide for yourself if it's hype or not then to pick up the book and read?


BB, Yes I saw that figure, and it startled me, too (if only because I answered it to the contrary). I think we saw variations on this theme play out around Tree of Smoke and Against the Day, and the best thing I can offer is that I think reviewers who do not finish a book should clearly say so in their reviews, so that readers can judge accordingly. As for myself, if I can't finish it, I won't review it.


I think part of the problem is that the campaign does seem orchestrated. There's the Flash website, the brand-new Wikipedia entry, the MySpace profile with bands creating songs inspired by the novel, the autographed giveaways at AWP, the interview on eMusic, the profile in the Times, the cover of NYTBR, and an interview spot on the NYTBR podcast. There is a huge marketing machine working overdrive to get Charles Bock's debut into our hands. I don't feel like RH feels lucky for the coverage so much as pleased their efforts have paid off.

The problem is that some people have started turning their anger toward Bock. I listened to him on the NYTBR podcast, and he sounds like a really nice guy who feels really lucky that this is finally happening for him. And that's fantastic. At the same time, I feel like I'm being bullied into wanting to read the book.


Can't agree with LRE more--this campaign reeks of a newly-promoted PR VP who has a copy of Infinite Jest stabilizing his kitchen table.

I read Beautiful Children: it's like every other big debut novel I've read in the last five years----dazzling for the first 100 pages, almost paralyzing to try to finish. Very few first-time authors have the skill to hit the walk-off full-count grand-slams that their publishers seem to think can happen twice a quarter.

And I think allowing your book to be marketed in this way (Bock might be a hell of a nice guy, but he's allowing the Combine to market his "serious fiction" in ways that make me feel icky) opens up the door for the rats and mice populating the "profession" of criticism in this country (can you call it a profession when there's twenty people for every paying gig?) Of course they're slamming the book---what else could he have expected?

Steven Augustine

The excerpt I read on the Powell's page was so dense with pop clichè, and hobbled with halting, unmusical writing, that I was glad they'd provided the excerpt. I'll spend that money on the work of a real *Artist* instead... some hardcover Sebald is missing from my library.

Halting, unmusical writing replete with second-and-third hand tropes is too common, nowadays, to merit much of a rant... but I *am* curious as to when/where this notion came about that reading the whole book is necessary before one is fit to decide whether or not to read the whole book. Mark, tell me you've never flung a book across the room thirty minutes after getting it home...?

If a reader stubs her/his toe on the complexity of a text and quits after a chapter, then it's all too possible that the book requires a later, greater, effort on the part of the reader. I first tried to crack Lolita in my teens and I went "feh" after 20 pages. Tried it again at 30 and have read it complete, with increasing pleasure, many many times since then. Happy ending.

But when the problem the reader faces is the *opposite* (i.e., the writing is not polished/complex/original enough), it's just not going to happen that reading six chapters is the cure for not liking the first chapter, or that reading the whole book will be the cure for not liking the first half of it.

These smart people who talk like novelists and look like novelists and are paid to do what novelists do, but who write like scriptwriters for television...what are they? Some sort of Scenarists, I suppose. Imaginators? Fablers? (They need a nice new term; I refuse to call them "Novelists"). They were raised on the television that was written by people who were raised on television, I think. A real writer is conscious of the weight and charm and force of certain words in certain cadences. Real writers are ever more rare as a cultural inheritance. The law of diminishing returns.

The paragraph seems to be the new unit of composition; words are no longer chosen, or combined, with particular originality or care. The point, for the Scenarist, being the *familiar* mind-pictures and how the *familiar* mind-pictures lead us through the plot. In other words: paper television. Whoopee.

If the writing isn't A-1 from the kickoff, I can't be bothered to hang around in order for the unfolding plot to redeem the book. It's the novelist's job to *grab* us and keep us; it's *not* the reader's obligation to give the novelist the benefit of the doubt (and a hug, perhaps, too?).

When did we forget this? About the same time that these Imaginator/Scenarists started cropping up, maybe?

I read the opening chapter of Nathan Englander's book and thought: yes. I read the opening chapter of Marisha Pessl's book and felt like gagging.

The opening chapter of the book here under discussion elicited a raspberry (note to budding Scenarists: opening the text with camera directions gives the game away; and please please *please* no more references to that a-photograph-steals-the-soul riff, which I first happened upon in the Ur-text called... Gilligan's Island.)

Patrick Stephenson

Zach, which of those marketing methods make you feel icky? An interview on a podcast? An article in a magazine? And so on. It's a crime to use every available avenue to promote a book that took 11 years to write? The only one that seems SLIGHTLY unseemly to me is the Wikipedia profile. Otherwise, these all—including the MySpace profile, which is perfectly appropriate when you consider the novel's characters—seem innocent. Please specify and detail.


I agree with Patrick and think Zach and LRE both don't quite grasp what's needed to get a book into the public eye and how dire the prognosis is for every new book that comes out. Consider that there are on the order of 175,000 new books every year, and I'll stand by my original sentiment - publishers can't do ENOUGH to get their books noticed and it's in the interest of the writer to see this happens. A groovy website? Love it. A podcast? Bring it on. Hire skywriters over Zuma if you like. But once you've read the book, you are free and clear to dislike it on its merits.

And Steven, nowhere in anything I've EVER said do I maintain that one must read "the whole book is necessary before one is fit to decide whether or not to read the whole book." Besides being tautological, it's also absurd. What I AM saying though - and all I have ever said - is if you base your decision on whether or not pick up the book and check it out on the face that people are complaining about the coverage; if you let the fact of coverage and promotion allow you to make up your mind about something you haven't even cracked open; if you've done anything other than exactly what you yourself did - which is to browse it yourself, to read a few pages and see if it sings to you - well, then you're something of a knucklehead from where I stand. You did the equivalent of picking up a book in a store, thumbing through and checking it out. You decided it wasn't. Completely fair! What you DIDN'T do was say "Oy, this is getting so much press attention, it must be hype, I'm not even going to bother looking at it."

Which is why I like you. Even if you don't like James Wood ...


Oh, and LRE, if you really think RH doesn't feel lucky but rather pleased, ask Little Brown how the feel about all the promotion they poured into Wesley Stace's Misfortune, and many others like it. Marketing a big book is like playing the lottery only with worse odds.

Steven Augustine

Mark, you will be shocked... SHOCKED... to learn that I *don't* dislike James Wood. Neither am I churlish nincompoop enough to deny him his due as a learned and swashbuckling critic. The man knows more than I will ever care to.

But I don't consider his interpretations categorically fallible. And I may, still, unfairly perhaps, hold against him an indiscretion or two from his youth (larf). But he groks *Sabbath's Theater*, which goes about halfway towards making up for... you know what...

Alright, off to feed the baby...!

Steven Augustine

Oops! "Categorically *infallible*" (Freudian typo)


@TEV: Ouch. Feeling the Internet bruises, so out comes ye olde cred. No way for you to know, but I spent several years working in marketing for a major publisher and am married to a book critic. A lot of our time has been dedicated to thinking and talking about how books make it into the public sphere. I like to think I have a pretty good idea how this all works, which is why, in my original comment, I was trying to piece together an argument for where the backlash could have come from. I thought I made it clear that I'm not judging Bock or his novel (which I haven't read, beyond the available excerpts, and so have no real opinion of).

In fact, the coverage is the main thing we've been discussing here. Even your original post was mostly about the coverage. Right now, that feels like all there is. There is very much a sense of plates spinning in the air. I don't think it's all that odd for people to respond with "Why this one?" It seems a little strange to express surprise about that. Nobody knows who Bock is, so I think it's pretty natural that some would approach with skepticism rather than curiosity (and as per your Gawker post, clearly some folks are willing to be won over).

Of course, if Beautiful Children holds up, none of this will matter anyway (see one of your earlier examples, Foer's Everything Is Illuminated, which is still being discovered and read and re-read). A year from now, after the hype dies down, if the book lives on we'll have our answer.


Apologies, LRE. No offense intended, as you say - I couldn't have known. But given your experience, I will say that I find your stance that much more curious/interesting. Given that the book has JUST come out, what are you expecting to find out there beyond the coverage? Even the reviews have just begun to trickle in. That takes time, doesn't it? And it's the coverage that hits first.

So I guess the question I would ask you, then, is if you were the publicist of record for this book, what would you do/have done differently? After all, isn't the question "why this one?" a powerful inducement to actually take a look at the book - which is what publishers and authors want?

Again, no offense intended. All cred is respected here at TEV.

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